By Guy Webster

In 1978, actress Liv Ullmann was personally invited to perform Jean Cocteau’s The Human Voice at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre. The reception was mixed. While critics praised Ullmann for her emotional expressiveness, there were suspicions about the source material. Cocteau’s play follows one woman in anguish after being left by her partner. This anguish comes out in a series of phone calls that slowly contextualise what is ultimately an hour-long monologue. Two questions plagued Roger Pulvers of ‘Theatre Magazine’ after watching Liv Ulman in the titular role  – ‘Does the audience really believe that a woman would carry on like that?’ and would Australian audiences resonate with Cocteau’s ‘poetic flight’ of expression?

Veiled misogyny like Pulvers has been a part of the history of Cocteau’s play since its inception. A year after its Melbourne run, The Washington Post would describe Ullmann’s performance as one characterised by ‘fits of hysteria’. Over forty years later and we’re back in Melbourne for a staging by indie darlings, Theatre Works that promises an adaptation entrenched in feminist ideology. The result is perhaps more admirable in aim than in execution, but important to the legacies of this classic piece of theatre, nonetheless.

Where Jose Quintero placed Liv Ulmann in a naturalistic apartment setting, this production opens in the ruins of what appears to be a penthouse suite. Set Designer, Hahnie Goldfinch has thrown us into a dystopian wasteland: a single light fixture sits at the centre of a stage framed by moulding fragments of walls. Collapsed on the floor in the corner, The Woman of this one-woman show (Jane Montgomery Griffiths) sports an equally ruinous outfit – yellowing silk and a frayed nightie introduce us to a character in the midst of a crisis. So far so good.

It is an interesting choice by Director Bryony Dunn to place us in this ruined world. Where past directors have opened curtains on a pristine domestic setting, Briony has created a space that reflects the ruined state of mind of the person we’ll be following for an hour. While this leads to some particularly resonate moments, the effect is to ultimately sap the play of much of its driving force.

As it stands, we begin in a space and with a character already broken. To make this fact explicit is to strip the play of its momentum. There is nothing that changes in this set, nor in its titular character. While this might be a fault of the script, it has been answered by past productions by making a point of this character’s breakdown. Though they may come to us in anguish, their attempts to mask their emotional turmoil is key to making sure audiences remain engaged. If this character feigns normalcy they become a ticking time bomb – the anticipation of which pulls us deeper into these phone calls and closer to this person fracturing at the seams. When will she break? And how? We need these questions to ensure we catch the thin plot lines described in these phone calls that push our central character ever closer to the edge.

Montgomery Griffiths is a capable performer who handles her characters anguish with an emotional fervour that, at its best, makes for many heart-wrenching moments. The potential pitfall of a play like Cocteau’s for any actor is that it is full of such moments, meaning that they must vary their delivery in increasingly nuanced ways to avoid repeating similar emotional beats. Too often will Montgomery Griffiths break her performative moments of normalcy – often heightened by a sort of gentry Britishness – by staring into the middle-distance and breaking down. This formula is so often repeated that when Briony introduces arresting new interpretations – emphasising, for instance, the violence of this unheard partner – the moment is devoid of stakes. What should be affecting becomes suddenly formulaic. The effect is that those shining moments when Briony’s innovations and Griffiths’ powerhouse delivery come together are suddenly lost in the fray; diluted by a repetitiveness that, though in the script, is a trap that could be avoided by different directorial choices.

To be clear, this is not a bad show. It is a potentially incredible show tripped up by minor issues that are overemphasised as a result of its minimalist style. In any other show less would be made of the character dropping a phone but talking as if it remains by her ear. But a one-woman show lives and dies on such details. The rules of this piece are stricter, and we notice when they’re broken. There is no issue with having a lead talk out to the audience as if they’re on a phone. This is surreal, after all. However, rarely are these breaks signalled in a way that would make them seem intentional. Niklas Pajanti’s lighting design complements the broken set perfectly. Yet, often lighting changes will be slow, incremental. A clinical brightness will be replaced by warm colourings with a sluggish speed that makes it difficult to understand what is instigating this change – our character’s distress or the rising sun in this fictional apartment? Opportunities to complement The Woman’s actions are often lost, meaning that a drop of the phone feels jarring rather than a logical progression of her emotional turmoil and the surreal language she expresses it in. The same could be said of Darrin Verhagen’s sound design, which breaks up the show with sudden bursts of horrifying sound. While incredibly effective on their own, these jarring moments seem to come out of nowhere, making it difficult for us to understand how they contribute to our character’s emotional state, or the plot which seems to inform it.

Ultimately, ‘The Human Voice’ is a series of arresting elements that fragment when they come together. Like its ruinous set, the foundation is not strong enough to hold and we’re left with a static experience not dissimilar to that of seeing someone try to break a house that is already broken.

Images: Jodie Hutchinson